(Log and photos of Vietnam trip, May 2009, here: http://www.karlgaard.net/vntrip)
(Finding a little girl in Vietnam 40 years later: http://www.karlgaard.net/muoi)
50 years ago in December 1968

I had spent a little more than four months in the infantry as the radio operator for the lieutenants who were my platoon leaders, and then someone found out I had worked in a photography shop in Fergus Falls called The Photo Center. That was enough experience for me to be selected to be a correspondent for the 2nd Wolfhound battalion (2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment) of the 25th Infantry Division. It meant I didn't have to go out every day on infantry operations, but it also often meant that I was "encouraged" to go on the battalion's operations where there was expected to be some fighting.

I was extremely fortunate to have good mentors in SP4 John Haydock, 1LT J.N. Black, and 1LT J.T. Richards. It was on-the-job training; I learned newswriting and photography in the trenches (almost literally). It formed the basis for me to go back to college after my VN experience and get a journalism degree at Moorhead State University in Moorhead, MN.

My photos and articles appeared in the Tropic Lightning News (the 25th Division's newspaper), the Stars and Stripes, the Fergus Falls Daily Journal, and numerous other publications. It was an amazing time.

50 years ago on 29 July 1968

Karl Karlgaard at Fire Support Base Crockett near Cu Chi, September 1968,
with bunker line in the background and good friend "Freddie" tying his boot before a mission.
(click on image for larger version)

How can it be 50 years? Sometimes it seems like only yesterday; other times it seems like a million years ago.

I landed at the massive Bien Hoa Air Force Base on a chartered 707 flown by Trans United Airways, one of many short-lived airlines that cropped up to fly replacements to Vietnam. After my 15-day home leave, I reported to what was then the Oakland Army Terminal, got issued jungle fatigues and some other clothes (Army green boxer shorts, handkerchiefs and t-shirts), and boarded a bus for Travis AFB. On the way to Vietnam we stopped at Anchorage, Kadena AFB in Japan, and I think the Philippines. We arrived in Vietnam about noon local time on July 29, 1969. I vividly recall the sensation of heat and humidity when the crew opened the airplane's door, followed almost immediately by the smell. It was the smell of the tropics plus millions of rice paddies fertilized with human and animal waste.

We rode an Army bus a few miles to 90th Replacement Battalion in Long Binh, located about 40 miles north of Saigon. I was struck by the fact that the bus had mesh over the windows to keep hand grenades from going through them. At 90th, we were immediately ordered into a formation where they told us how things were going to work. There were going to be three formations a day; we were all expected to be at each formation unless we were on KP or some other detail. Our names would be called when we had been assigned to a unit, and we would grab our gear and report for transportation to our new units. Right after the formation we lined up to turn in our U.S. currency; it was changed into Military Payment Certificates (MPC), which is what we used for the time we were in VN.

Even though the 90th had an internal perimeter on the huge Long Binh base camp, it had been attacked during the Tet offensive a few months earlier. There were bunkers all around as well as coils of concertina wire, but we were not issued weapons. It was a very interesting first night because we were too dumb yet to know the difference between incoming and outgoing fire. We didn't sleep much.

At the last formation of that first day, my name was called for KP (Kitchen Police) duty the next day. I had to tell the CQ (Charge of Quarters) where I was sleeping, because the CQ runner would be awakening those of us on KP at about 4 am to head to the mess hall. I don't recall much of that day except that I thought it was a crappy way to spend my 21st birthday. I remember spending the afternoon digging ditches around the mess hall to drain the big puddles left from the monsoon rains.

When I finished KP, one of my friends told me my name had been called, but he didn't recall where I was going. My name was called again the next morning, and I learned I was going to the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, about 25 miles northwest of Saigon. We left that afternoon to catch a "milk-run" flight out of Bien Hoa for Cu Chi. We flew on a C-123. A lucky few got seats around the outside on canvas sling seats. The rest of us sat on the floor of the cargo aircraft with our legs under large straps that were stretched across the cargo bay.

I was picked up at the Cu Chi airstrip by a 3/4 ton truck and driven to the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment's area at the base camp. The NCOIC (non-commissioned officer in charge) when we reported in had a difficult time with my name. I told him several times and he finally gave me a pencil and paper to write it down. To this day he remembers that I was from Fergus Falls, MN. He also told me about the name confusion a couple of years ago; I didn't remember it.

I spent about a week at the base camp. I got issued an M-16 rifle, helmet, poncho, canteens, web gear, etc. I attended a five-day "refresher" course that was designed to acquaint us with the situation in the field and probably also to acclimatize us. (Our Basic Training and much of our Infantry Training (AIT) was focused on defeating the Russkies in Europe.) It was hot and humid all the time. Then I was off to join Bravo Company near the little town of Dau Tieng, which was on the southwest edge of the Michelin rubber plantation. Us newbies were in our first action in the rubber trees within a week or so, and I was soon asked by the 3rd platoon leader if I would carry his radio. He told me he wanted someone who could speak English since many of the guys in my unit were from the Bronx or the deep South. So I became an RTO (Radio Telephone Operator), which I did for the next four months or so. I have no idea how I managed to carry the 25-pound radio plus all my other gear. I dropped from about 180 pounds when I left AIT to probably 150 three months later.

Then someone discovered I had worked in a photo store before being drafted, so I was selected to be an Army correspondent. I took photos and wrote articles for military publications or the next 10 months. 

It was all an amazing experience. I am fortunate to have survived it.

Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War

The Ken Burns organization has produced many outstanding documentaries, including ones on the Civil War, baseball, and the National Parks. They have completed a thorough documentary of the Vietnam War, released in September 2017. It is 10 episodes and 18 hours long, and it took 10 years and $30 million to produce.

I am honored to have two of my photos from the Vietnam War included in the production. They appear in a segment where LT Vincent Okamoto talks about the battle at Fire Support Base Schofield on Aug. 24, 1968. I was part of the Bravo Company soldiers who were taken in by helicopter to secure the area and set up a base. I recall working hard to build a bunker, but then my platoon got selected to go on the ambush. About 20 of us in 3rd Platoon went out and set up our ambush at a site about 1,000 meters from the base. After dark we heard hundreds of enemy all around us heading for the base. Fortunately they didn't find us on the ambush, or they would have killed us all. We could hear the fighting at the base most of the night. When I returned to the base in the morning, I discovered that three friends had been killed in the bunker I helped build. It was a bad time...

LT Okamoto was the acting company commander, and his heroic efforts kept the base from being overrun. He was put in for the Medal of Honor for that night, but it was downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross. He gives an articulate accounting of the battle and the heroism of his men.

A soldier from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment "Wolfhounds" pulls bunker guard duty with an M-60 machine gun at Fire Support Base Crockett, located about 20 miles northwest of Saigon. The image appears about 15 minutes into Episode 7. It was also used in the background art of the disc for Episode 7 (below).

My good friends Doc Morse and SGT Steff carry a soldier wounded by a booby trap to a waiting Medevac helicopter near Fire Support Base Reed. This photo appears about 17 minutes into Episode 7.

Presentations: “A Soldier’s Images of the Vietnam War”

Each year in late May or early June, I show my photo presentation at John Arntson's American History classes at Clackamas High School. I am always impressed by their interest and respect. What a great group of young men and women.

Karl in Vietnam as a correspondent for the 25th Infantry Division, probably July or August of 1969. (click on image for larger version)

Vietnam trip, May 2009: http://www.karlgaard.net/vntrip

Finding a little girl in Vietnam 40 years later: http://www.karlgaard.net/muoi

Visiting my friend "Doc" Morse in Hawaii: http://www.karlgaard.net/hawaii2008

Several books on Vietnam that might be informative for those who are interested:
Vietnam links: http://www.karlgaard.net/vnlinks

"Vietnam Album" is out in paperback; check Amazon.com. The Kindle version's reviews were all 5 stars (the top rating).
List of Karl's photos in the paperback version of the book: http://www.karlgaard.net/kkphotos.txt